BREATHE EASY – RETHINKING THE DUMBBELL PULLOVER FOR ENDURANCE
Most endurance runners and cyclists I know have no interest in doing weights exercises, so it’s hard to see them getting interested in an exercise that’s usually associated with bodybuilders who want to build the top-inner quadrant of their pectoral muscles (their words – not scientific fact!). But what if I told you that there is a way to do the dumbbell pullover that will help your oxygen uptake, improve your core technique (stronger posture for improved breathing) and release thoracic tension?
‘YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG’
An old body building theory states that dumbbell pullovers are a ‘finishing’ exercise done after other chest exercises to work the ‘upper’ chest. Sports medicine doctor and sports conditioning consultant, Dr Deepak Hiwale argues that the exercise has nothing to do with muscle development of the chest. Instead, it helps you expand your rib cage and stretch your abdominals. Doing the exercise with Dr Hiwale’s modifications makes the pullover even more applicable this way, even though the weight you can move tends to go down because you are taking out any swinging and much of the assistance from the shoulders and upper back. In fact, this exercise should be considered part of your training for the core.
This is how a pullover is typically done:
- Lie down on a flat bench – feet are usually flat on the floor, sometimes up on the bench
- Hold a single dumbbell vertically in both hands, i.e. you create a triangle with the thumbs and forefingers of both hands and your palms rest almost flat against the inside of the weight plate at one end. Sometimes a barbell is used (held horizontally) – this puts more emphasis on the upper back
- Fully extend arms vertically above the top of your chest, then inhale as you lower the weight behind your head, as far and low are you can while still keeping the arms straight. Your back will arch as you do this.
- Exhale as you raise the weight back up over your chest – back is still arched as you do this.
THE DUMBBELL PULLOVER FOR ENDURANCE
Dr Hiwale has identified a new way to do the dumbbell pullover so it’s more applicable for sports – especially endurance sports. As is often the case, I’ve acted as a human guinea pig (but with better toilet training) and found that this exercise also relieves some of the typical stiffness that comes from sedentary habits such as sitting at a desk or driving, while also having a great benefit for throwing actions and heavy functional lifting (e.g. picking up rocks or boxes, deadlifting, etc.).
Dr Hiwale also argues that while his version of the exercise helps stretch and induce isometric contraction of your abdominal muscles, and it can help expand the ribcage, especially in young athletes (before the ribs fuse with the sternum in the middle). For those of us who stopped growing decades ago, it still has the benefit of direct work on the intercostal muscles – those muscles in between the ribs that enable us to inhale (external intercostals) and exhale (internal intercostals).
This revise version of the pullover in effect increases the capacity of your thoracic cavity, which Dr Hiwale argues would help cardiovascular endurance in the long run. The ‘lifting up’ of the rib cage will also improve posture, which is important for the prevention of injury and soreness, plus good posture will help hold off fatigue.
REMADE FOR ATHLETES
Here is the revised version of the exercise. Again, note that if you’ve ever done pullovers the traditional way, then you’ll have to swallow some pride and select a smaller dumbbell than you’re used to.
- Breathe IN at the start position. Note that this version of the exercise will work best with a dumbbell or kettlebell – not a barbell.
- Breathe OUT as you lower the weight. You should have totally exhaled once the weight is lower than your head.
- HOLD the dumbbell just below the head with arms bent a little at the elbows while you take a couple of deep breaths
- Push your core in while forcing out ALL your air, i.e. try to flatten your back to the bench and reduce space between abdomen wall and your back, creating a ‘vacuum’.
- When you can’t hold the ‘vacuum’ any longer, pull the weight up to the start position, still using your core to keep your back flat.
- Take a deep breath in at the top, the repeat – you only need 5 reps per set.
A good suggestion is to alternate this with HANGING LEG RAISES using a similar breathing and abdominal activation sequence – exhale at the start and tense your abdominals, then raise the legs, have a short pause and hold at the top. Lower the legs and take 1-2 deep breaths before repeating.